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South Slavic: January 18, 2001


18 January 2001, Volume 3, Number 2

Religious Instruction In Yugoslavia's State Schools?

Part I. Part II will appear on 25 January 2001.

Omer Karabeg: In today's Radio Most (Bridge), we are going to discuss whether religious instruction should be introduced in the state schools. Our guests are Olga Popovic-Obradovic, professor of national history at the Faculty of Law in Belgrade, and Bogoljub Sijakovic, minister of religions of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Mr. Sijakovic, as a minister of religions you advocate the introduction of religious instruction in state schools, making the point that it is one of the basic human rights. Do you think that the present system of education without religious instruction violates the human rights of the faithful?

Bogoljub Sijakovic: Of course. Religious instruction is one of the basic human rights. It includes the right to education, the free choice of a religion and world outlook, and the right of parents to educate their children.

However, that right is limited in our schools. The system of education is strongly marked by ideology and images, starting with the names of schools, to school interiors, to the textbooks. All that limits the right to a free choice of world outlook and restricts the opportunity of every individual to develop their personality.

Religion is not only a cultural and historic fact or an inherited property. Religion is a personal necessity as well as a right guaranteed by the state. The natural right of parents to educate their children -- and therefore the right to educate them in the spirit of their own religion -- must not be suspended by any system of education. This is why one must ask: what gives us the right to expose a religious child to the influence of a school environment that is opposed to the environment of his family and to what must be going on in that child's soul.

Olga Popovic-Obradovic: I think that the right to religious education could be defined as a component of human rights. However, I deeply believe that it should not be done the way Mr. Sijakovic said.

The point is that according to the constitutional provisions in Yugoslavia and in both federal republics -- Serbia and Montenegro -- religious education is recognized as a human right. There is no stipulation of the Constitution that in any way prevents parents or their children from being educated in the spirit of their religion and to adopt the world outlook of their religion...

The Constitution provides that the state and the Church are separate, but the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia clearly emphasizes the right of the religious communities to organize religious education in denominational schools. This is why we are talking here only about the concept of a lay or secular state, in which the Church is separated from the state and in which the right to a religious education is not a matter of dispute.

However, that right cannot be exercised in state schools but in religious communities, where every parent can have their child educated in denominational schools in the spirit of their religion. No one denies them that right.

Bogoljub Sijakovic: ...When you said, Mrs. Popovic, that religious communities have the right to a religious education and religious instruction, it is as though you guaranteed someone's right to breathe. I do not need a state that would guarantee my right to breathe and my right to sleep, and I do not need a state that would guarantee any Church's or any religious community's right to a religious service or the right to religious instruction.

It goes without saying. Of course, we were living for a long time in a state where things that were supposed to go without saying could not be put into practice and were even under attack by the state...

When I am talking about religious education in state schools, I bear in mind the experience of democratic states that are secular states as well. In many of these countries there is religious education in state schools.

However, besides the model of a state that is separate from the Church, there are also national Churches in some Catholic states. This is also true in almost all the Muslim states as well as in England and Greece. There is also a model of recognized Churches, which existed in the Yugoslav Kingdom and which represents a combination of these two models. I think that we should -- as much as possible -- return to our tradition, without breaching international legal regulations and customs...

When we say that the state and the Church are separate, then we mean that their fields of competence are not the same. The state should stay out of the Church's field of competence and the Church should stay out of the state's preserve. That is clear. But the state should very much be interested in legal organization of the domain of religion...

Olga Popovic-Obradovic: In a lay state, the choice of a religion and a world outlook is the private matter of every individual. Children, of course, can be educated in the spirit of a religion, but if the Church is separated from the state, then it cannot be the business of the state, but of the religious community.

Freedom of worship and freedom of conscience are not only a constitutional right of every citizen, but also one of the basic human rights. The freedom of worship and of conscience means that one can choose a religion and whether to believe or not. The point is that religious issues are a completely private matter.

The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia respects that very principle and specifies that no one can be forced to declare any religious beliefs...

But if we introduce religious instruction into state schools, we cannot avoid that situation. Children or their parents will be forced to declare themselves one way or another. That violates a basic human right, which is freedom of conscience and of religion. So, if we want to respect consistently the principle of a secular state, then we cannot talk about religious instruction in state schools...

Bogoljub Sijakovic: I think that the state should support all its citizens who are believers in maintaining their religion. This is the best possible way to respect other people's religions. If I am deeply religious, if I am dedicated to my religion, then I will know how to respect another man's religion. That is very important to me, and I would like to live in a country where these rights are guaranteed.

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Sijakovic, if I understand correctly, Mrs. Popovic thinks that introducing religious instruction in state schools would not be in accordance with the present Constitutions of Yugoslavia and Serbia. What do you think about that?

Bogoljub Sijakovic: I would like her to show me the article of the Constitution that forbids religious instruction in state schools.

Olga Popovic-Obradovic: A constitution does not have to forbid something. A constitution can regulate some issues in another way. The Federal Constitution explicitly says that the Church and the state are separate. The Federal Constitution explicitly says that no one can be put in a situation of having to declare whether he or she belongs to a certain religion, and no one has to answer any other question concerning religion. The Constitution of the Republic of Serbia also explicitly says that the Church and the state are separate and that religious instruction should take place in religious schools within religious communities.

Bogoljub Sijakovic: Therefore, there is no explicit ban. I believe that the law and the constitution should be interpreted in a positive and not in a negative way. This inverse interpretation of the constitution was very popular over the last 50 years. I fear that we are actually applying many of our prejudices and habits in our theoretical stands and this is why I think that we should first get rid of the prejudices while discussing this issue.

I insist that the state must guarantee a person's right to be a believer. Talking about the privacy in religious matters could mean that Churches and religious communities belong in catacombs, that people should retire into dark corners of their rooms to profess their religion. Please, the right to religious expression must be public. Everybody has the right to publicly express their religion. I want to do it in public, not in catacombs.

Olga Popovic-Obradovic: I am not questioning your demand for guarantees concerning the right to religious instruction and to be educated in the spirit of one's religion. After all, there is no democratic constitution that would deny that right. The present constitution of this state does not deny this right, either.

However, I really do not understand what you were saying about practicing religion in catacombs. Has anyone [in Serbia] been doing so in catacombs in the last ten years, or even before? Has anyone been professing his faith in catacombs in the United States of America, which adopted the principle of separation of Church and state -- as a big, revolutionary principle in the 18th century?

I will remind you that, historically speaking, the principle of the separation of Church and state was adopted to protect the freedom of worship and denomination.

That was the basic reason to separate the state from the Church. That does not mean that religion or a religious world outlook should be actually be shunned by the state. In a state that is based on modern principles, religion is simply a private matter.

Therefore, what the state should do is to protect every individual's right to freedom of religion and of worship. I do not see any obstacle to that in a state that is separate from the Church.

Bogoljub Sijakovic: Do you consider the Federal Republic of Germany a lay state? There is religious instruction in state schools there.

Olga Popovic-Obradovic: There is religious instruction in state schools only in some states of the Federal Republic of Germany. As far as the your argument about national Churches is concerned -- that is a model of a state that is not separated from the church -- I will remind you that such a model exists in England and in Scotland -- but not in Wales -- as well as in the Scandinavian countries and in Greece. However, with the exception of Greece, all those Churches are Protestant, which means that they were, in a way, secularized during their long history...

We should think [instead] about what the introduction of religious instruction in state schools would mean from the point of view of the situation in our society. I have already said that introducing catechism classes in schools -- whether as a compulsory or an elective subject -- would actually mean forcing children to declare a religion.

Let me remind you that, in this region, to declare one's religion means to declare one's ethnic identity. As you know, in the Balkans, the factor of religion is woven into the very essence of national identity. Historically speaking, national identity has been built around religion.

There is no national identity here without this religious element. Therefore, there is no nationalism without the religious element. National intolerance in this region is actually religious intolerance, and every single generation here has experienced that. My generation has had that experience over the past ten years.

The issue of national Churches has been opened again with the creation of national states [out of the former Yugoslavia]. That in turn generates intolerance and animosities that mirror our internal divisions.

In view of the experience of the wars that had this religious component -- let me remind you that the genocide and the atrocities were committed in the name of religion -- I simply cannot imagine that making children declare a religion would not bring about new divisions and conflicts in the schools.

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